Saturday, May 28, 2016

More on the Cave of Skulls excavation

EXPEDITION UPDATE: Searching for the next Dead Sea Scrolls. A group of archeologists are in a race with antiquities thieves to find artifacts in the Judean Desert. Haaretz joins the diggers as they explore the Cave of Skulls, an inaccessible space below a cliff top (Haaretz). Nir Hasson has a follow-up article to the story reported widely in the media last week (see here). This one has some good new information, but is behind the subscription wall. But you can still read it with a free registration with Haaretz, which gives you limited access to premium articles (I think 6 per month). So read it all. Meanwhile, I'll give a few excerpts, with commentary.

On the recovery of the Wadi Tse'elim (Se'elim) papyrus in 2009:
It took three months for the faux Yankee to win the trust of the thieves, and for them to remove the papyrus from its hiding place and show it to him. Finally, they brought it in all its glory to their fourth meeting, in the lobby of the Hyatt Hotel in Jerusalem. The agent, meanwhile, brought a suitcase ostensibly containing $2 million in cash. When satisfied that the thieves had brought along the real deal, he raised a hand to his hat brim and the police forces pounced, arresting the sellers and seizing the papyrus.

Asked where the papyrus had come from, the thieves answered, “Wadi Tziel” (also known as Wadi Tze’elim) – among the larger of the desert’s water courses. The item, says the IAA, dated to 139 C.E. and had apparently been found in one of the desert's many caves.
In my earlier post I forgot to include a link to the post reporting the recovery of the papyrus. Go there for the IAA press release and a downloadable image of the papyrus

Five years later, in 2014, looters were spotted coming from the Cave of Skulls. Notice of the report of their capture and trial is here.

The article indicates some uncertainty whether the papyrus comes from just after the Great Revolt in 68-70 CE or (more likely) just after the Bar Kokhba Revolt in 132-135. Paleography might be of some help here, but the issue is not addressed. That said, I don't think the Palestinian Hebrew script developed a great deal between the mid-first century CE and the mid-second century.

On the gruelling work in the cave, done mostly by volunteers:
Sitting in the cave mouth, secured by ropes, yet more volunteers sift dirt extracted from the cave. The wind blows a lot of what they filter right back into the cave. Such is life. The volunteers and everything else tend to get covered in suffocating layers of dust.

Armed with their filters and buckets the diggers have made quite a few discoveries, including pottery sherds, animal bones, combs, arrowheads, seeds and fruit pits, bits of leather, remnants of textiles – and fragments of papyrus. None have contained writing. Yet.
And this tantalizing conclusion:
This quasi-military mission to find and remove artifacts not yet located by thieves ends in another week or so. The IAA hopes the state will have the nous to allocate a substantial budget to seriously explore the hundreds upon hundreds of caves dotting the desert – whether used as dwellings or as sanctuaries over the millennia.

They need to act before the thieves find them all, leaving behind nothing but plastic fan bits, cigarette butts and evidence of their liking for peanut butter-flavored snacks.
I had the impression that the expedition in the early 1960s thoroughly cleared out the caves in the Judean Desert, but it seems that there remains considerable work to do. If so, it should be an urgent priority.

Meanwhile, we'll see whether more manuscripts emerge from the Cave of Skulls. I would be surprised if they do, but some suprises are nice.

Background here.

UPDATE (30 May): Archaeologist David Stacey e-mails: "Jim don't forget the many, many caves, mainly between Qumran and Jericho, that were dug by IAA in the 90s - see Atiquot 41"